'Business-as-usual.' (MAHMUD HAMS/AFP via Getty Images)

November 30, 2023   5 mins

Following the October 7 atrocities, the imperative to respond in fury was irresistible, and Israel’s Prime Minister reached immediately for the blunt instrument of his formidable war machine, vowing to break Hamas’s back. But, as Clausewitz noted, war is not ultimately about killing people and destroying things: it is a means to achieve political objectives. After the war ends, what next?

Don’t look to Netanyahu for the answer. He has been clear about the war’s objective: to destroy Hamas, particularly its military wing, the Izzedine ad-Din al-Qassem Brigades. Some of his far-Right politicians have gone further, calling for the levelling of Gaza, perhaps even with nuclear weapons, or expelling its entire population. But these amount to more of the same: rage-fuelled impulses. Neither Netanyahu nor anyone else in Israel’s government (some key members of the political opposition joined the cabinet after October 7) has yet articulated a coherent post-war strategy for Gaza, let alone for the larger dispute between Israelis and Palestinians. This failure bodes ill for both communities.

Even if the IDF eviscerates Hamas, Israel’s leaders will — regardless of whether Netanyahu survives politically — have to figure out how to organise Gaza in order to create and sustain stability there. Departing in haste from a place, large swathes of which have been reduced to rubble, will elicit universal condemnation. Worse, that step will not produce conditions within Gaza that increase Israel’s security, the justification for the war from the outset. The United States could walk away from its failed wars of regime change in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya; those countries are distant from the American homeland. Israel cannot do the same with its neighbour.

Israel could decide to stay and occupy Gaza indefinitely. But given how much death and destruction has been wrought, IDF soldiers will police a hostile population of 2.3 million people, some proportion of whom will eventually turn to armed resistance, even if leaderless. The Israeli army has demonstrated, more than once, that it has the firepower to quell revolts; but heavy-handed repression coupled with a prolonged occupation will beget a self-sustaining cycle of violence out of which, in time, a variant of Hamas will emerge. The more draconian Israel’s occupation, the more likely a renewed intifada of sorts — one that will most probably spread to the West Bank. This means Israel will end up policing two Palestinian territories, resorting regularly to arrests, interrogations and military raids — all without diminishing Palestinians’ determination for a state they can call their own. Moreover, the United States, the one country truly indispensable to Israel, has already stated that an occupation of Gaza would be unacceptable, save for a “transition period”.

As an alternative, a multinational peacekeeping force could be deployed in Gaza. But which countries will provide troops to patrol Gaza indefinitely given the calamitous conditions? The United States, Britain and France have been involved in discussions. But these countries have long been staunch supporters of Israel, and Gazans will understandably see their soldiers as Israel’s enforcers, if not impartial protectors. Deploying an all-Arab force might be a way around that problem, but because Israel’s war has aroused intense anger across the Middle East, the region’s rulers will be skittish about being seen as collaborators. And Egypt, a potential leading candidate in a peacekeeping operation, has joined Israel in blockading Gaza for nearly 20 years, inflicting tremendous suffering on its people, who are unlikely to welcome its troops. A UN peacekeeping force could be the answer. Yet the historical record casts doubt — Bosnia and Rwanda, for example — on their capacity to restore and maintain order in the face of large-scale violence, which cannot be ruled out in Gaza.

More fundamentally, peacekeeping troops, no matter their nationality, cannot provide day-to-day governance any more than a city’s police force can run the quotidian operations required for basic services, such as healthcare, education and housing (to say nothing of managing war-shattered Gaza’s reconstruction). Administering the territory in a manner that eventually meets the minimal needs of its citizens will be a multi-year task at minimum, and will require a government with local roots and popular legitimacy. Israel will understandably not allow any role for Hamas, but it has also ruled out one for the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority. In any case, the PA commands scant respect among Palestinians. A recent poll found that a majority believes it should be dissolved and that it serves Israel’s interests more than theirs. That owes partly to the failure of its negotiations with Israel (since the 30-year-old Oslo Accords) to produce anything that remotely resembles a Palestinian state, or even to resist the construction of Israeli settlements on the West Bank and the (continuing) evictions of Palestinians from their homes and grazing and farm lands.

A viable governing authority in post-war Gaza will, therefore, have to be staffed by local notables who have earned public goodwill and respect. But those who do enjoy grassroots esteem are precisely the ones who will worry about forsaking it by joining what Gazans may come to view as a collection of quislings propped up by Israel to do its bidding. Netanyahu’s insistence that Israel will “continue to control security” in Gaza after the war suggests that one Israeli demand could be guaranteed access to Gaza for the IDF. His statement that the IDF could remain there for “an indefinite period” suggests that Israel may ask for much more than that. Even a government run by respected Gazans will lose legitimacy if it accedes to either demand, especially the second.

Aside from Israel’s lack of a strategy for post-war Gaza, since 1996 it has not had (with some exceptions such as Ehud Barak) a leader with a plan for addressing the political aspirations of Palestinians. And its Right-ward political trajectory since the latter half of the Nineties, and especially in recent years, makes it unlikely that one will emerge without fundamental political change. Yet history and geography dictate that Israelis and Palestinians must live side by side.

American Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib was recently vilified, and later reprimanded by the House, for using the slogan “from the river to the sea”, which Hamas has used in calling for Israel’s destruction. (Tlaib clarified that her plea was for equal rights in that space for Israeli Jews and Palestinians alike.) But it bears remembering that Right-wing Israeli politicians have long used these same words to underscore their pledge to continue the occupation and never allow a Palestinian state, of any kind. Or that the 1977 platform of Netanyahu’s Likud Party likewise declares that “between the Sea and the Jordan [river] there will be only Israeli sovereignty”. If Israel remains determined to reject a Palestinian state, it will perforce revert to quarantining Gaza, as it has since 2007, and managing the West Bank in the manner that it has since 1967. Based on the past, that amounts to a formula for continued violence — perhaps not on the scale of October 7 but bad enough to intermittently unsettle the lives of Israelis and Palestinians alike, though not in equal measure.

Sadly, as things stand, even a mediator determined to kickstart talks between Israelis and Palestinians toward a two-state solution — that Biden has said he will revive after the war to ensure “a vision of what comes next” — will find that the pathways to it have been all but blocked by now. The West Bank has been chopped up: Israel fully controls Area C, which accounts for 60%  of its area and contains its richest agricultural lands. Area A and Area B, both under the authority of the PA, albeit to varying degrees, are archipelagos cut off from each other by roads reserved for Israeli Jews and a constellation of settlements. Moreover, settlement construction has soared since 2000, and the number of settlers living in those deemed legal under Israeli law plus the illegal “outposts” has increased from under 200,000 in 2000 to more than 485,000 today. What’s more, even as the war in Gaza continues, the Israeli government seems intent on building additional new settlements.

How, under these circumstances, can any West Bank state that even minimally meets Palestinians’ aspirations be created so as to marginalise Hamas-like movements? To make matters worse, the atrocities Hamas committed could make those Israelis who have warned that any Palestinian state, regardless of location and configuration, will pose a mortal threat to the Jewish state much more influential in the country’s public square. The dismaying upshot, then, is that Israel has no coherent strategy for managing post-war Gaza, or for resolving the larger Israeli-Palestinian dispute — save for a tougher version of business-as-usual. And that, it ought to be clear by now, is a dead end.

Rajan Menon is the Director of the Grand Strategy programme at Defense Priorities and a senior research fellow at Columbia University. His latest book is The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention